What They Had is hollow where it should be poignant
What They Had is a stubborn film. A family drama about Alzheimer’s, it is hard to recall if the disease is ever actually mentioned by name. Writer/director Elizabeth Chomko, making her debut here, frontloads What They Had with didactic exposition; viewers get to know all the characters and their relationships and exactly what issues need to be resolved by the film’s pat finale.
When her mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) goes out in her nightgown for a walk through a snowstorm, Bridget (executive producer Hilary Swank), flies to Chicago with her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), to help manage her family’s situation. Bridget’s father, Burt (Robert Forster), resolutely insists there is nothing wrong with his wife of 60 years. However, her no-nonsense brother Nick (executive producer Michael Shannon), who has been managing things up to this point knows otherwise. He is determined to move Ruth into a memory care facility. Bridget, a stand-in for the audience, evaluates the situation and tries to please everyone, which of course, dredges up secrets and lies, sibling rivalry, and more.
Burt, who has a heart condition—a clunky, obvious metaphor—may be in denial about the severity of Ruth’s condition, but denial runs in the family. Bridget won’t tell her dad she’s a lapsed Catholic (or that she doesn’t love her husband of 20 years). Emma lies to her mother about filling out a college dorm application. Meanwhile, Nick is off-again with his girlfriend, because he has not proposed to her.
What They Had strives to be a poignant, tender love story about Burt not wanting to lose his wife. Yet the film plays much of Ruth’s behavior—flipping off a man in church, announcing she’s pregnant at mealtime, or confusing a stapler for a phone—as comic moments, which are meant to emphasize the greater tragedy of a loved one losing their mind. After one episode leaves Bridget and Emma teary, someone asks them, “Why are you crying?” “It’s sad!” they exclaim, perhaps hoping audiences will feel the same way. But Chomko never really makes us care for these insufferable people.
Although Forster gives an impassioned performance—he yells and yells—Burt is really just an obstinate bully. He refuses to understand Nick ownsthe bar he tends and calls him a bartender. He demands that Bridget have a cup of coffee when she doesn’t want one. These scenes may get at the larger communication gap between the characters, but they fail to illuminate the real issues of how parents want the best for their children and can’t always accept the decisions their offspring make. This theme is actually best illustrated when Emma explains to Bridget how pressured she feels. It may be the film’s sole authentic emotional moment.
The film hits bottom when it shifts its focus to Bridget and her loneliness. An embarrassing episode has her flirting with Gerry (William Smillie), a construction guy she knew as a teen. Her few scenes with her husband Eddie (Josh Lucas) feel forced, cudgeling viewers with their hollowness and sterility.
What They Had may be grounded in reality—portraying the effects of the disease in Ruth’s character, but Danner is reduced to overacting in her scenes. She plays up her dementia in ways that are painful to watch, but not in the way Chomko intended. Viewers will feel sad for the actress, but not the character, most notably as Bridget showers with Ruth and repeatedly instructs her mom to wash her “hoo-hoo.”
Michael Shannon gives the film’s best performance as Nick, a man who is tired of dealing with a situation that will never improve. Sort of like the film. Shannon elevates the drama with his committed turn, but his efforts seem to be in vain.
Swank, unfortunately, fails to be ingratiating. She should be likeable and sympathetic, but the Oscar-winning actress comes across as eager to please. This approach alienates viewers who should be identifying with her.
Late in the film, Bridget is driving and sees a turkey in the road. The animal is a pet name Ruth and Burt have for one another. But this ridiculous scene prompts an unintentional laugh or headshaking, not solemn reflection. What They Had is, indeed, a turkey.
What They Had opens in Philly theaters today.